How to make flexible working work for everyone

Landmark government research finds men are key to changing workplace culture and offers simple solutions

Single father working at home on a laptop holding his child

 

More male role models and a fundamental reframing of flexible working are among the recommendations in new landmark government research on the topic.

The paper could prove invaluable to firms who want to boost flexible working in their organisations.

The analysis of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to flexible working comes with a list of simple, low cost steps or ‘nudges’ that could make a big difference both to uptake and to staff retention. And it makes clear there are advantages for business in making it the norm.

The recommendations include making it easier for employees to apply for flexible working by designing short and simple forms and allowing new staff to carryover flexible working arrangements to new posts even if they move company.

The qualitative analysis of organisations experiences of flexible working is the first piece of work to come out of the Gender and Behavioural Insights (GABI) project, backed by the Government Equalities Office.

The research looked at how individuals, managers, organisations and society help or hinder flexible working to catch on.

Benefits

It finds that there are plenty of benefits to flexible working. It is “an enabler of workplace gender equality” according to the report. And firms that embrace it enjoy a competitive advantage as well as more motivated staff and improved retention of talent.

Flexitime around core hours emerged as the most common form of flexible working while job share was rarest. However the research looks at a range of other forms of flexible working including part time working, compressed hours, annualised hours and remote working.

While government legislation states that flexible working should “suit employees’ needs” the research, based on interviews with HR professionals across industry, finds that many bosses think any arrangement has to actively help their organisation too.

Remarkably a number of firms report that they’ve never had a man apply for a flexible working arrangement. However there was a feeling that men do make use of informal flexibility. This suggests that men and women both want to be able to work differently however something is stopping men from asking for it using official channels. The answer to what that is begins to become clear when the researchers find some line managers admit to being shocked should a man apply for flexible working.

Flexible working is still routinely presumed to be for women, particularly mothers. Men who go part time or ask to work from home more regularly for example have to challenge gender norms. The report finds it’s less “culturally acceptable” for men to work flexibly.

Sexism

Another element putting men off is the association between flexible working and career progression. Inevitably women who have had to juggle taking on the majority of unpaid domestic work with a career have seen the latter stall due to the practical issues as well as any innate sexism.

However if more men were to use flexible working the impact on male and female careers would vanish according to the report. But it’s a chicken and egg situation because men are less likely to take flexible working while they can see it could hold them back in the workplace.

Things are changing. The research suggests younger workers, particularly millenials, have a much more relaxed attitude to working hours and when they get into more senior positions flexible working could become much more widespread.

Already some senior leaders regularly work from home or reduce their hours but they are not always the best role models because their flexible working is often viewed as a privilege they have earned by getting to the top rather than a model for everyone in their firm to copy.

Role models are among the key recommendations in the research. Firms are encouraged to spread stories of men who are making a success of flexible working through internal communications but also by putting on events around Fathers’ Day in June or International Men’s Day in November.

Solutions

The Behavioural Insights team behind the research used to be known as the ‘nudge unit’ charged with coming up with tiny changes that could alter people’s behaviour. Consequently their list of solutions to the questions posed in the report are invariably simple and straightforward.

They call for HR to be involved with all flexible working requests in an organisation so they know how widely the policy is being used and in what way and so that managers who refuse an application must explain their decision to someone.

They also suggest application forms should be short and simple to begin the process of going flexible.

Perhaps most radically they propose employees being allowed to take their flexible working arrangements with them if they change roles within a company, and also if they are joining from another firm. However that idea rests on their current flexible set up remaining secret during the recruitment process.

The report also refers to firms who rebadge flexible working in an effort to move away from negative connotations, instead calling it ‘intelligent working’ or ‘agile working’.

The GABI project is set to look into the issue further but the first report concludes that “attitudes are changing” and companies would do well to get to grips with flexible working to benefit their employees and the organisation.





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